EPA Sued Over Failure to Explain Its Narrow PFAS Definition
EPA’s Definition Misses Many Toxic and Persistent Chemicals
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is withholding documents explaining why it has adopted an exceedingly limited definition of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The current EPA definition conflicts with its Master List of PFAS substances, as well as international and state definitions, and may preclude efforts to comprehensively manage this pervasive class of toxic chemicals.
PFAS are associated with numerous health problems, as well as heightened risk of testicular and kidney cancer. Because they do not break down easily in the environment and most bioaccumulate in humans and the food chain they are called “forever chemicals.”
EPA adopted an Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) working definition of PFAS, which first appeared on its website in 2021, with no scientific antecedents or public review. The definition was also displayed in the Agency’s National PFAS Testing Strategy released in October 2021, prompting PEER to file a Freedom of Information Act request for any records that would explain how EPA developed this definition. The agency has yet to produce a single responsive record.
EPA’s working definition results in 6,504 PFAS. By contrast,
- EPA’s own Computational Toxicology (“CompTox”) database lists 12,034 PFAS;
- The international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD of which the U.S. is a member) definition is much broader, using a standard of one fully fluorinated carbon, which covers many more PFAS; and
- Several states are adopting definitions based on the OECD model, as states begin to directly regulate PFAS on their own in the absence of any meaningful EPA action.
“The definition is the fundamental building block for regulation and EPA has an obligation to explain the basis for its PFAS definition,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA. “EPA’s current approach will leave many toxic and persistent PFAS beyond federal control – a result that makes no sense at all.”
EPA claims that it has assembled the records responsive to the PEER request but is subjecting them to “awareness review” by senior political appointees. Since the agency has yet to give a firm date by which production would even begin, PEER today filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel release of all the records.
“Political awareness review is not a legal basis for withholding release of public records,” added PEER Litigation and Policy Attorney Hudson Kingston, noting that the practice of awareness review was supposed to have ended with the departure of the Trump administration. “EPA keeps bragging about a transparency that it has yet to put into practice.”